May 02 2018

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The fairy tales that we’re familiar with have spent centuries being smoothed down by retelling after retelling, retaining their magic despite the years and multiple minor tweaks because, as stories, they make sense to us. Some might argue that those minor tweaks Disney-fy the process, but I believe that they whittle away the things that we, as human beings, find implausible or unacceptable. There is a reason that it is never the venal siblings who are rewarded, that wit and courage trump power and wealth, and that goodness and love triumph in the end. Fairy tales make sense to our innate moral compasses.

The proven longevity of these narratives inspire each new generation to spin their own versions in hopes theirs too will join the slipstream of folk consciousness. Unfortunately, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling likely will not succeed in this as, despite the trappings of myth and the (clever) allusions to modernity, it relies too goddamn much on the main characters doing things that are either under-explained or fly directly in the face of everything you know about the character till then. Emma’s transition from doting mother to homicidal maniac is completely glossed over, which is a really weird oversight in a book that enjoys having its main character, Emma’s husband, Apollo, have exhaustive conversations with just about everybody. And there’s a crucial decision in Little Norway (>when he takes Emma back to the house where he just killed the homeowner and left the front door standing wide open, what the fuck?!) which makes not a lick of sense for his character, given how justifiably paranoid he is about the negative attention of white people and cops. But Mr LaValle needed it to happen in order to further the plot, which is some cheap ass writing right there (also? Gratuitous sex scene. Hard pass.)

And, crucially, I didn’t like Apollo. Or rather, I didn’t see him as the “good man” that the book was trying to portray him as. He’s a conflicted individual trying to do the best he can, but he treated Emma poorly, right from the incident with the red bracelet, IMO. I’m definitely of the camp (that Mr LaValle is aware enough of in the book to mention) who would view what he did as a total dick move. And again, it’s only towards the end that you get the idea that Emma’s decline came gradually and not just out of nowhere. I really, really hated how awful they were to each other, and wonder, especially after reading Everything I Never Told You, if this is some sort of thing Americans since the 70s or so have been raised to believe, that it’s okay (even funny! Fuck you, crappy sitcoms) to be casually cruel to your spouse because true love or something dumb.

Anyway, I really enjoyed The Ballad Of Black Tom but The Changeling just didn’t work for me despite the fact that the modernization aspect of it was impressively good. I neither believed in nor cared about that characters. And wtf was up with Apollo’s parents? There’s the bones of a good story there but Mr LaValle did an awful job of telling it. Literally, it was all tell from Lillian, not show. And, as a woman, I didn’t care for the overarching portrayal of women finding their own feminine mystical powers only after deep betrayal turns them into monsters (tho I guess this is progress after TBoBT erases Ms Suydam from the narrative altogether.) Still, I’ll look out for his next novel because there’s promise here, and I want Mr LaValle to succeed. He writes about modern fatherhood really well, and I absolutely support his mission to explore the African-American experience via fantasy and horror writing. I just want him to write better.

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